This article originally appeared on Motherboard US in February 2018
In 1984, the BBC aired a TV movie so disturbing it would only repeat the broadcast once, a year later, on the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Japan. That film was Threads, and anyone who’s seen it will never forget it. Those who haven’t, finally can with the recent release of a Blu-ray that’s restored the film in high definition.
Threads tells the story of the British industrial city of Sheffield and how it might fare during a sustained nuclear attack on the United Kingdom. It’s a visceral journey into a hellish world where society falls apart and the lucky die in the initial blast. The rest, including the film’s protagonists, are left to rot as they wander the bombed out British city.
The movie shocked the world on its release. Its creator thinks that was the point. “I’m glad I did it,” Mick Jackson, the director of Threads, told me over the phone. “If there’s anything I’m proud of, it’s this.”
Jackson's career has spanned decades. He’s worked with Whitney Houston, Tommy Lee Jones, and Claire Danes. His most famous film is probably The Bodyguard, but Threads is the one he wants people to remember.
Between Trump’s heightened nuclear rhetoric and North Korea’s entrance into the nuclear club, Jackson thinks the lessons of his film are more important than ever. “This sense of things...getting out of control very quickly is a lesson that we’ve forgotten,” he said. “I hope we don’t learn it in the wrong way. This is what you’re risking when you talk about fire and fury.”
For Jackson, it’s all a bit too much like the early 1980s. “That period had seen Reagan starting the Strategic Defense Initiative, the downing of the Korean Airliner by the Soviets, and [Reagan] calling the Soviet Union the Evil Empire,” he said. “It was perhaps the most dangerous time for the world since the Cuban missile crisis and...there was this feeling that BBC wasn’t dealing with this in any way. Everyone was very paranoid. The world was on the brink of nuclear war and no one knew anything about it.”
At the time, Jackson was a young producer at the BBC and he pushed to make something that would teach the public more about nuclear weapons. It was a touchy subject at the broadcaster, which knew it was an important issue but had screwed up a previous film tackling the subject.
In 1965, the BBC produced a docudrama called The War Game. The forty minute film depicts a Soviet attack on a an English city. A droning British narrator vividly describes the horror of the attack as people scramble on the screen to survive and, much like Threads, society breaks down.
The War Game so horrified BBC executives that they shelved it. People protested. The BBC said the government wouldn’t let them show the film. It held a few screenings around London, but only allowed in some members of the press and government functionaries. Despite the small theatrical run and not being an actual documentary, The War Game won an Oscar for best documentary feature in 1966.
Jackson told me that, despite the BBC’s protests that the government had suppressed the film, the government had done no such thing. According to Jackson, the BBC didn’t want to take responsibility for airing something so violent and anti-nuclear. “ The War Game had been very highly charged politically,” Jackson said. “[Director] Peter Watkins was a committed and passionate movie maker and had a point of view about nuclear war--that Civil Defense would probably not save you.”
The truth of The War Game’s suppression is more complicated than Jackson’s memory and only recently revealed. Glasgow University professor John Cook dug up internal documents about the movie that revealed that the British Home Office had politely, if forcefully, suggested the BBC not air the controversial movie. It complied and some at the broadcaster blamed the BBC itself, while a brave few said there had been government interference. The BBC even aired a documentary about the controversy after Cook publicized the files.
The BBC’s suppression of The War Game was a black mark on the broadcaster it wanted removed. Jackson was a young producer with a science background. He wanted to research the effects of nuclear war and make a documentary explaining those effects to the public.
His bosses approved his proposal. “With some trepidation, the BBC let me make [a documentary] on a very small budget and they thought...this may be a way of getting them out of this awful bind they were in about The War Game,” he said. “They could do this and portray it as a politically neutral, factually based issue which was of concern to people.”
With the BBC’s blessing Jackson produced Q.E.D. A Guide to Armageddon , a 30 minute documentary that aired as part of the BBC’s documentary series. To make the program, Jackson talked to various experts and sought an answer to a simple question—what do nuclear weapons do?
The program was a success and a relieved BBC was ready to hear Jackson’s next pitch. “I had found, in researching the subject, that more interesting than will it burn you, will it break your bones, will it break your house, were...the effects on people psychologically and therefore the effects on society. It’s hard to do that with a documentary that’s not just interviews with experts. But one way of getting at those emotional and psychological consequences would be to do a drama. I took this idea into the BBC system and they said, go and do some research and come back to us with a proposal. That proposal was Threads.”
Jackson spent a year researching Threads before coming back with the proposal. He spoke with upwards of 50 experts. “Doctors, physicists, defense specialists, psychologist, agronomists, climate scientist, strategic experts, intelligence experts, investigative journalists, nuclear weapon scientists,” he said. “I made myself an expert on nuclear war.”
Again, it was the early 1980s and it felt as if the world might end in nuclear fire at any moment. “For the first time people were starting to question mutual assured destruction,” he said. Generals, politicians, and think tanks such as the RAND Corporation were discussing the possibility of a winnable nuclear war. He thought it was terrifying.
“It is unthinkable for most people. Nuclear war is so outside your everyday experience it’s hard to get your mind around it. And if you can’t get your mind around it, you can’t talk about it and have a meaningful debate.”
To make nuclear war thinkable, Jackson and writer Barry Hines constructed a story about normal people in Sheffield—a city in the middle of England. The movie follows Ruth Beckett and Jimmy Kemp, a young couple who decided to marry because they’ve gotten unexpectedly pregnant. “The idea was to take a movie which was about death...and use the iconography of life to tell the story,” Jackson said.
Jimmy dies in the blast, but Ruth survives to give birth months after the bombs have dropped and civilization has ended. She names the baby Jane and her life is medieval. The film ends with Jane giving birth to her own stillborn child at the age of 13. “I tried to put into Threads images that you couldn’t get out of your head,” Jackson said. “So that when you talked in this abstract language about first strike capability and kilotons, you would also think about those things and that might give you pause.”
In the years after its release, America and the Soviet Union backed away from nuclear war. Reagan and Gorbachev reached an arms control agreement and Reagan pursued disarmament in the later years of his presidency.
Jackson is worried that today’s politicians have forgotten what it was like to live on the brink. “What worries me at the moment is President Trump and many in his administration are using the same kind of language about winnable [nuclear war and] bloody-nose strike against North Korea without realizing the consequences of that,” he said. “They have a failure of imagination. They can not believe that it could be anything other than surgical. The lesson of everything in nuclear policy through the Cold War is that we’ve come so close to so many times to stumbling into war by miscalculation, by not knowing what the other side is thinking.”
He worries that North Korea might one day bait Trump into starting a nuclear war that draws in the whole world. “The thing could very rapidly get out of control,” he said “Trump has no interest in going there...he’s uncurious."
Art helps put things in context. Stories help us understand the world around us and Threads is one of the great stories about nuclear war. It helped a generation understand its effects at a time when people were hungry to understand. Jackson is less sure a movie like Threads would do as well today. “We seem to be in a state of simultaneous fear and denial,” he said. “Fear that something awful will happen yet not wanting to go there to talk about it and what we might do to prevent it.”
Correction: This story has been corrected to note that Sheffield is a city, not a town.